OPINION: Trans People, Sports, and Domination: Why Lia Thomas is Important to Bigots


Benjamin Newcomb, Contributor

“I am” – Exodus 3:14

         I’d like to begin this opinion piece by congratulating Ms. Lia Thomas on her win in the 500-meter freestyle at the Ivy League nationals. As a former swimmer who used to do the same event, I can appreciate how much work, dedication, and time it must have taken to get such a time. It is my sincere hope that she continues to have a long and successful career.

         Now, I am no great lover of sports in general, and neither am I particularly invested in the swimming conferences of the Ivy League, but after hearing the complaints of those who would not allow trans people into sports, I believe the matter has crossed a line from an issue of sport to an issue of justice. It seems to me that many of the arguments against trans people participating in sports are simply a method to dominate trans people. These arguments reinforce the continued oppression they suffer across the United States, including the laws in Texas which aim to separate trans children from their families and the law prohibiting the mentioning of trans people’s existence in public schools passed in Florida. I aim to prove that the same bigotry that produces these laws is also at the heart of the arguments against trans people existing in sports.

First it is prudent for us to establish exactly why the transphobic arguments that conclude with the exclusion of transgender athletes are wrong, and why trans people ought to be included in the sports league for which their gender most closely matches, if we are to have gendered leagues at all. I have written on these arguments at length before, so this proof will not be of the full length. The argument that is routinely pulled out and dusted off despite the continued objections to it is that trans women and trans men, insofar as they have gone through the puberties of the sex assigned to them at birth, have either an advantage or disadvantage respectively when competing against their cis competitors. Furthermore, those who oppose transgender inclusion worry that specifically depraved cis men will lie about being trans women in order to dominate women’s sports. Both of these arguments are deceptive and rely on viewing transgender people in sports as the gender they were assigned at birth based on their sex, which for a variety of reasons both social and physical is inaccurate. 

For one, socially, trans people tend not to be too interested in seeing their bodies morphed towards the ideal of the sex they were assigned at birth, as that tends to be precisely the opposite of what they desire and what will make them happy. However, sports tend to move people towards that ideal. Thus, the number of transgender people even involved in sports is insignificant. 

For those who do enter sports, there is usually a requirement that they be on hormone replacement therapy for about a year or so. Hormone therapy essentially makes one’s body that of the sex one would rather be, and studies have consistently shown that the differences between cisgender and transgender athletes on hormones is at least indeterminate and at most insignificant. As such, on grounds of fairness between the gender binaries, trans people probably belong in the gender that they identify with. 

The objection that allowing trans women specifically into sports will result in infiltration by cis men in order to win more is simply a fantasy conjured by old myths that trans women are depraved cis men in disguise. This fantasy has never happened, and, insofar as needing to go on hormone therapy would result in both serious gender dysphoria and unhappiness as well as a decrease in athletic ability for the cis men, will never happen. 

Finally, if one wishes for so-called “biological fairness” in athletic competitions, if one were to exclude trans people, they also ought to exclude those cis people born who are taller, or  with increased lung capacity, or a slower resting heart rate, or a larger wingspan, for these too are innate biological advantages. But we see in the rhetoric of those who recite these arguments like psalms that it is conspicuously only ever trans people who must pay for these advantages by being excluded, and that cis people with advantages are praised as having extraordinary talent. The fair option under this biological paradigm is to create leagues not based on gender, but based on categories like muscle mass, height, weight, and previous records. In other words, the abolition of gendered sports entirely. 

Indeed, this conclusion was arrived at long ago by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, where the women in the ideal city ought to work out with the men. This is because the goal of sport for Socrates is the perfection of the body in comparison to other bodies, which is an inherent step in perfecting the soul precisely because the two are linked. A healthy, correct body helps one pursue a healthy, correct soul, which ultimately leads to a harmony within oneself and thus a good life. 

         All human activity aims at some end, and that end is the good life (Aristotle’s eudaimonia). The good life is the life where one’s time is filled with contentment, joy, and comfort. In order for these things to arise in the human soul, the material, political, social, and ethical environments one lives in must be brought into harmony and the proper order. For all people, external gender expression is one of those ways in which one brings oneself into harmony with one’s internal sense of gender. For instance, when a traditionally feminine cis woman wears a dress because it makes her feel attractive or pretty, that is an expression of that woman’s gender precisely because feeling good about one’s body moves one towards eudaemonia. As such, gender is a key part of one’s journey towards eudaemonia, the ultimate end of human life and the reason why all activity is undertaken. Gender is a kind of realization of an aspect of the self that is otherwise opaque to the individual. Additionally, gender becomes formulated not as a tautology (“I am x because I am x”) nor a consequence (“I am x because I have the characteristics of x”), but as a conditional which places the end of all human life at the center: If being x would bring me closer to eudaemonia, then I am x. The justification for one’s gender identity is rooted in the ultimate conception of the self and the good.

         The denial of one’s gender then becomes a vulgar, vicious action. It is the denial that one may move towards eudaemonia, towards a livable and contented version of oneself. It is for this reason that we deny transphobia the power over our souls it so craves; it is a denial that some ought to be able to live well and harmoniously. Transphobia is the assertion that some deserve to live as a less than human version of themselves, and that someone has the right to be able to take the pursuit of the good life away from them. Transphobia is an assent that cis society has a right to deny trans people access to eudaemonia.

         Transphobia exists because trans people pose a certain kind of threat to society at large. One can hear it echoed in the fearful proclamations of transphobes: “If men are allowed to be women and vice versa, what shall we structure the gender lines of society upon? How shall I know what bathroom to use? How shall I know who I wish to have sex with, or whom I find attractive? How shall I know what to refer to people as; shall I call everyone an attack helicopter? How am I supposed to identify, for now I am my gender because I have the genitals I have, and if what you say is true, then I have no assurance of such a fact any longer.” In this argumentation, transphobes are really expressing a frankly very sad fear that they will no longer have mastery not over trans people, but over themselves and their conception of gender. They are afraid of being cast out into ignorance and to admit that what they claim to have control over by possessing knowledge is nothing but vapor. Trans people in their existence pose a threat to this because they cannot be easily categorized. They contradict all the transphobe knows about what gender is, and since all of society is built upon a conception of gender that is engraved in the flesh as though it were carved in the tablets on Sinai, the trans person becomes the antithesis to society. They are an unbearable contradiction that must be put in its place by doing violence to it. Misgendering, exclusion, all the way up to physical violence is an attempt to exert mastery over trans people in order to prove to oneself that one has mastery over the self.

         This is why those trans athletes, like Ms. Thomas, are so important to transphobes: they are quite literally embodiments for transphobes of the conflict between cis society and its inability to assert mastery over gender. When trans athletes compete in a sports event, they implicitly carry with them the message that they can transcend the physical barriers of gender, that the so-called scientific and objective component of gender, the body, is not as set in stone as transphobes would like to believe (and indeed, given the scientific data we have on trans athletes against cis athletes, this is true). This would totally undermine the conception of gender which allows transphobes to exert mastery over it, because it is grounded in the physical component of gender. They complain about bone density, about differences in lung capacity, heart size, and muscle mass, about differences in rankings before and after transition (there is a myth going around that Ms. Thomas was ranked 400+ pre-transition in the 500 freestyle. This is false, she was ranked 65th) supposedly under the value of fairness. But this nebulous fairness does not extend to excluding those who were born of the same gender with these traits. Besides this, even if they were truly worried about fairness, they give us no reason to prioritize fairness over the humiliation of excluding transgender athletes. The humiliation is the point of the action (although not necessarily the intent of the actor), for the humiliation is a type of domination to exert the cis conception of gender onto society using trans athletes as a scapegoat.

         In Plato’s Republic, at the very beginning of the book, Socrates and friends are delayed by Polemarchus, who orders them to wait and asks them to come to a symposium with him, his father, and his entourage, unless Socrates and his companions Glaucon and Ariston would like to fight to leave. Socrates, who had plans to return home to town, jokingly asks Polemarchus if he could be persuaded to allow Socrates to go on with his day. Polemarchus in turn asks Socrates if he could persuade if Polemarchus’ entourage refused to listen. Socrates, consulting with his companions, assents that he could not, and goes with Polemarchus.

         It is within this idea that transphobes refuse to be persuaded. They will not allow themselves to be persuaded, because to do so would be to lose all mastery over the world, and thus they lash out in violence and hate. Furthermore, it is on some level impossible to change them, for the only change that may arise in them must come from within; they must allow themselves to be persuaded. Their ideas are marred and gnarled because to think properly would be to end themselves as they currently are, and that would be too painful.

Photo by Aleksandra Abramova on iStock